Crisis in Honduras

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

June 29, 2009

A version of this opinion, titled “How to fix the mess in Honduras,” was published at

The ousting of Honduras’s President, Manuel Zelaya, by the military is as unfortunate as it is revealing. The coup caps weeks of tension brought about by the president’s ill-conceived attempt to amend the constitution to enable his own reelection. More importantly, it shows that the old demons that have given Latin America a tragic political history are dormant but hardly dead. These demons include, above all, the inability to heed John Adams’s call to have a government of laws and not of men.

There are many villains in this play. As other Latin American leaders, President Zelaya fell victim to the virus of presidential reelection, an institution with questionable pedigree in a region that has paid a dear price for its fondness of caudillos. The real problem, however, was that by organizing a de facto referendum to test the popularity of his idea, Zelaya pursued his ambition with total disregard of his country’s constitution. The latter explicitly forbids holding referenda—let alone an unsanctioned “popular consultation”—to amend the constitution and, more specifically, to modify the presidential term. Unsurprisingly, the president’s idea met with the resistance of Congress, nearly all parties (including his own), the press, business, electoral authorities, and, crucially, the Supreme Court, that deemed the whole endeavor illegal. Last week, when the President demanded the Armed Forces’ support to distribute the electoral material to carry out his “opinion poll,” the military commander refused to comply with the order, was summarily dismissed for his refusal, and later reinstated by the Supreme Court. The president then cited the troubling history of military intervention in Honduran politics, a past that the country—under more prudent governments—had made great strides in leaving behind in the past two decades. He forgot to mention that the order that he issued was illegal.

To complete the vaudeville, Zelaya—a late convert to Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian doctrine—introduced an ideological rationale to his ambition: his was merely the attempt of a leader committed to the poor to create a “participatory” democracy in Honduras, leaving behind the oligarchy-dominated charade of which he is the quintessential product. His words received support from Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, who sternly denounced the danger of a military takeover in Honduras (Don’t Chavez and Castro rule over governments where the military is openly politicized?). Yet, we should make no mistake: there is nothing ideological about the president’s plan. He has never bothered to explain what kind of constitution he wants, other than one that allows his own reelection. Thus, Zelaya is less an impersonator of Chavez than of Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president, another unsavory character bereft of any ideal other than staying in power by hook or by crook.

Now the Honduran military have responded in kind: an illegal referendum has met an illegal military intervention, with the avowed intention of protecting the constitution. Moreover, as has been so often the case, this intervention has been called for and celebrated by Zelaya’s civilian opponents. For the past week, the Honduran Congress has waxed lyrical about the armed forces as the guarantors of the constitution, a disturbing notion in Latin America. When we hear that, we can expect the worst. And the worst has happened. At the very least, we are witnessing in Honduras the return of the sad role of the military as the ultimate referee in the political conflicts amongst the civilian leadership, a huge step back in the consolidation of democracy.

While bearing by far the greater responsibility for this crisis, Mr. Zelaya is still the legitimate president of Honduras and must be reinstated in his position. The OAS, the neighboring countries and the U.S. government, still enormously influential in Honduras, should demand no less. They should also make a call to all political actors in Honduras to take a deep breath and do what mature democracies do: allow the law to deal with those that try to step outside the law. If Zelaya must be prosecuted for his hare-brained attempt to subvert the Honduran constitution, then let the courts proceed as rigorously as possible. And the same applies to the coup perpetrators. If Honduras is to have a decent future its politicians and soldiers, in equal measure, must learn that the road to democracy and development runs through the rule of law.

Dark clouds are gathering again over Central America and the U.S. would do well to pay attention. The current crisis in Honduras, the governance problems in Guatemala, and the ongoing destruction of democracy in Nicaragua, form an ominous trend. The U.S. has now the opportunity to show both friends and foes in the Western Hemisphere that it has finally decided to side unequivocally with democracy. And that the rule of law matters in Tegucigalpa as much as it does in Washington.